A multimillion-dollar gift of nearly 700 paintings, ceramics and other objects will make the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a leading center of Japanese art.
The gift announced today comes from the estate of a Mary Griggs Burke, a St. Paul native born in 1916. Her family made its money in the 19th century through lumber, railroads and utilities.
Burke, who died in 2012, lived almost her entire life in New York City, where she acquired a collection of Japanese art considered one of the finest outside Japan. But she never forgot her Minnesota roots, said Matthew Welch, the MIA's deputy director and chief curator.
"She grew up on Summit Avenue," he said, "And her family house still stands there across from the University Club."
Griggs left St. Paul for college when she was 18. Welch said her interest in Japan took hold in the 1950s.
"She made a trip to Japan, and started taking some classes at Columbia University," he said, "and met an extraordinary scholar there, Miyeko Murase, who became her advisor as she amassed this collection."
Welch, a specialist in Japanese art, first met Burke 20 years ago.
"She had a real sensitivity and feeling for Japanese art, but I think she also had the wisdom to listen to the specialists around her," he said.
As the Burke collection grew, so did its reputation for quality. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York created exhibitions from it, and through Welsh's connection to Burke so did the MIA.
By the time Burke died at age 96, the collection consisted of about 1,000 paintings, screens, prints, ceramics and other art.
Curators at the MIA and the Met knew they would receive many pieces in her will. Now that the distribution is finalized, about 300 pieces will go to the Met, and nearly 700 will be coming to Minneapolis.
Welch said Burke left detailed instructions on the split.
"It's probably fair to say that a higher percentage of the best works went to the Metropolitan," he said. "But she felt very strongly that she didn't want it to seem like all of the good things went to the Metropolitan. You know she wanted both collections to be very substantial in their own right. So we too are getting incredible masterpieces."
In addition to the artworks the MIA and the Met will each receive $12.5 million for further acquisitions of Japanese art and for programming and fellowships linked to the collection.
The Burke pieces add to the MIA's already substantial collection of Japanese art. Two years ago, California collector Bill Clark donated 1,700 pieces to the museum. Andreas Marks, the curator of the Clark collection moved along with them.
Marks will now oversee both the Burke and Clark collections at the MIA. The combined works of art, he said, give the MIA holdings a depth that make the museum one of the foremost institutions for Japanese art in the country.
"I'm not being humble, and I am obviously not that objective," he said. "But really if you just look at the figures — 16 permanent rooms for Japanese art — there is no other museum in the U.S. that has that kind of space committed to Japanese art. Even in Japan, this is very rare."
The irony of bringing the Clark and Burke collections together is that their longtime owners once were competitors.
Often the two collectors went after the same pieces when they went on the market. They bid against each other.
"So it's very funny in a way that at the end artworks like that are being united here, now, at the MIA," Marks said.
The MIA's new acquisitions will be celebrated with a large exhibition opening in September.
For Welch, the MIA's deputy director, his personal relationship with Burke makes the announcement bittersweet.
"I'm thrilled that it's happened," he said. "But we miss her dearly, and it does seem like the passing of an era."